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Monday, August 27, 2007
Coverage of Vick means bigger issues ignored

By Jemele Hill
Page 2

Twice during the height of Paris Hilton's jailhouse saga, MSNBC made the controversial decision to shelve segments on the strange disappearance of 22-year-old Stepha Henry – an African-American woman who mysteriously vanished on vacation in Miami – in favor of live coverage of the spoiled hotel heiress.

Ignoring Henry, a recent college graduate from New York whose disappearance mirrored the more publicized case of Natalee Holloway, was lambasted by journalists across the country. MSNBC's values and judgment were rightly questioned.

But let's be honest here: MSNBC's priorities, although horribly misguided, were merely a reflection of our own.

The nation's obsession with Hilton tells us a lot about our obsession with Michael Vick, whose fall has generated Hilton-esque interest. The outrage concerning Vick and his dogs has revealed some ugly truths not only about the public's priorities, but where our line of disgust lies.

Vick's transgressions frayed a raw nerve, but he has incredibly drawn a level of widespread vehemence that even some of sports' worst criminal offenders were spared.

The reasons for it are complicated. The role of race certainly has fueled interest in the Vick case. Undoubtedly, the vileness, cruelty and uncivilized nature of Vick's crime is equally significant, especially when, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, 44.8 million households own dogs.

Despite all those factors, the avalanche of coverage and common disgust has brought us to a larger, more significant question that must be asked. Why don't sports fans summon this condemnation and outrage when athletes mistreat other humans?

If NFL criminality were a top-25 poll, Vick, who pleaded guilty Monday to a federal dogfighting charge, wouldn't even rank in the top 10. In fact, he might be in the "also receiving votes" category.

Ray Lewis, who was once accused of murdering two people, was never as vilified as Vick. Lewis ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice, which means Lewis admitted to some culpability.

Most people expect Vick won't have a shot at playing in the NFL again before he's 30 – in the 2010 season. Lewis, who was fined $250,000 by the NFL, was connected to the deaths of two people and never suspended.

Leonard Little actually took a human life in 1998. Little, the Rams' defensive end, killed a St. Louis woman after running a stoplight while intoxicated. His blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit. He was suspended eight games and sentenced to 90 days in jail at his convenience. (And while we're on the subject, Pacman Jones, who is guilty of nothing more than stupidity, also will be suspended longer than Little.)

"Even if Vick is convicted, he'll spend more time in jail than most people do who have a DUI," said Mike Boland, the spokesman for Missouri's Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose outspokenness during the Little case fell on deaf, national ears. "That's really sad."

The growing list of off-field transgressions -- drunk driving, domestic violence, drug and gun possession and even the occasional murder -- seems to have finally taken its toll on the American psyche. The aforementioned crimes are in the news much more frequently than dogfighting. Maybe we've become desensitized.

"We have to look inward and ask, what is the sanctity of our own life?" Boland said.

Part of the problem is we seem to wait until a situation has reached worst-case scenario.

Domestic violence is still a serious problem in sports, but the last time there was widespread, intense discussion about it was during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Certainly the police blotter doesn't contain fewer domestic-violence incidents now than it did then. Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was arrested last summer for his hitting his wife in the face near Fenway Park. Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes threatened to kill his wife, NiShea Gilbert, and their kids on a voicemail, which Gilbert played for reporters at the St. Petersburg Times. She also said he backed up the threat by sending a picture of a handgun to her cell phone. Gilbert has a restraining order against Dukes, who is still with the Devil Rays (although currently on the temporary inactive list), despite having been arrested five times since 2003.

But there was little outrage over those incidents.

"What does it take?" said Catherine A. Real, Gilbert's attorney. "Does it take an O.J. Simpson case? Until it gets at its worse, until there is an incident, the national level of concern wanes."

Could the same be said about the discussions of race? Vick's race has been an issue since he became the first African-American quarterback to be selected No. 1 overall – which was later compounded by the fact he received extraordinary criticism as a quarterback.

How big a role race played in Vick's treatment will be debated for some time. Still, it must be noted that while the country argues about race in the Vick case, other situations in which racial furor is necessary remain largely ignored.

While Vick, with insurmountable wealth and some of the best criminal lawyers at his disposal, was fighting for his freedom and reputation, six black teens in Jena, La., are facing far more serious prison time for their role in a schoolyard fight with a white student – who was briefly treated at a hospital but released without serious injuries.

One of the accused, Mychal Bell, a 17-year-old football player, recently had the charges against him reduced from attempted murder to aggravated battery, but he was found guilty by an all-white jury and faces up to 22 years in prison when he is sentenced in September. The other five black teens involved in the altercation continue to face attempted murder charges and up to 100 years each in prison.

The fight capped a rash of racially-motivated incidents in Jena, which began when a group of white teens hung nooses from a tree at Jena High School to ridicule their black schoolmates.

But the national cameras have yet to invade Jena. District attorney Reed Walters, the prosecutor in the case, hasn't suffered backlash like Mike Nifong, the prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case. Oprah Winfrey held a two-day town hall meeting about Don Imus. There have been rallies in support of and against Michael Vick.

What does the "Jena Six" deserve?

Better than the dogs at Bad Newz Kennel.

Page 2 columnist Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.